An Introduction to the Corpus Hermeticum
by John Michael Greer
(Editorial Note: In these comments, Greer approaches the Hermetic tradition from a philosophical and Platonic perspective. While this was a common approach in past generations, it fails to fully apprehend the experiential Gnostic impetus within Hermeticism. Though influenced by the Greek philosophical tradition, the Hermetic tradition is not simply a derivative of Platonic "ideas"; nor should its visionary and experiential focus be lumped into the term "magic" as commonly understood. -- Lance Owens).
The fifteen tractates of the Corpus Hermeticum, along
with the Perfect Sermon or Asclepius, are the
foundation documents of the Hermetic tradition. Written by unknown authors
in Egypt sometime before the end of the third century C.E., they were part
of a once substantial literature attributed to the mythic figure of Hermes
Trismegistus, a Hellenistic fusion of the Greek god Hermes and the
Egyptian god Thoth.
This literature came out of the same religious and philosophical
ferment that produced Neoplatonism, Christianity, and the diverse
collection of teachings usually lumped together under the label
"Gnosticism": a ferment which had its roots in the impact of Platonic
thought on the older traditions of the Hellenized East. There are obvious
connections and common themes linking each of these traditions, although
each had its own answer to the major questions of the time.
The treatises we now call the Corpus Hermeticum were
collected into a single volume in Byzantine times, and a copy of this
volume survived to come into the hands of Lorenzo de Medici's agents in
the fifteenth century. Marsilio Ficino, the head of the Florentine
Academy, was pulled off the task of translating the dialogues of Plato in
order to put the Corpus Hermeticum into Latin first. His
translation saw print in 1463, and was reprinted at least twenty-two times
over the next century and a half.
The treatises divide up into several groups. The first (CH I), the
"Poemandres", is the account of a revelation given to Hermes Trismegistus
by the being Poemandres or "Man-Shepherd", an expression of the universal
Mind. The next eight (CH II-IX), the "General Sermons", are short
dialogues or lectures discussing various basic points of Hermetic
philosophy. There follows the "Key" (CH X), a summary of the General
Sermons, and after this a set of four tractates - "Mind unto Hermes",
"About the Common Mind", "The Secret Sermon on the Mountain", and the
"Letter of Hermes to Asclepius" (CH XI-XIV) - touching on the more
mystical aspects of Hermeticism. The collection is rounded off by the
"Definitions of Asclepius unto King Ammon" (CH XV), which may be composed
of three fragments of longer works.
The Perfect Sermon
The Perfect Sermon or Asclepius, which is also included
here, reached the Renaissance by a different route. It was translated into
Latin in ancient times, reputedly by the same Lucius Apuleius of Madaura
whose comic-serious masterpiece The Golden Ass provides some of the
best surviving evidence on the worship of Isis in the Roman world.
Augustine of Hippo quotes from the old Latin translation at length in his
City of God, and copies remained in circulation in medieval Europe all the
way up to the Renaissance. The original Greek version was lost, although
quotations survive in several ancient sources.
The Perfect Sermon is substantially longer than any other surviving
work of ancient Hermetic philosophy. It covers topics which also occur in
the Corpus Hermeticum, but touches on several other issues as well - among
them magical processes for the manufacture of gods and a long and gloomy
prophecy of the decline of Hermetic wisdom and the end of the world.
The Significance of the Hermetic Writings
The Corpus Hermeticum landed like a well-aimed bomb amid the
philosophical systems of late medieval Europe. Quotations from the
Hermetic literature in the Church Fathers (who were never shy of leaning
on pagan sources to prove a point) accepted a traditional chronology which
dated "Hermes Trismegistus," as a historical figure, to the time of Moses.
As a result, the Hermetic tractates' borrowings from Jewish scripture and
Platonic philosophy were seen, in the Renaissance, as evidence that the
Corpus Hermeticum had anticipated and influenced both. The Hermetic
philosophy was seen as a primordial wisdom tradition, identified with the
"Wisdom of the Egyptians" mentioned in Exodus and lauded in
Platonic dialogues such as the Timaeus. It thus served as a useful
club in the hands of intellectual rebels who sought to break the
stranglehold of Aristotelian scholasticism on the universities at this
It also provided one of the most important weapons to another major
rebellion of the age - the attempt to reestablish magic as a socially
acceptable spiritual path in the Christian West. Another body of
literature attributed to Hermes Trismegistus was made up of astrological,
alchemical and magical texts. If, as the scholars of the Renaissance
believed, Hermes was a historical person who had written all these things,
and if Church Fathers had quoted his philosophical works with approval,
and if those same works could be shown to be wholly in keeping with some
definitions of Christianity, then the whole structure of magical
Hermeticism could be given a second-hand legitimacy in a Christian
This didn't work, of course; the radical redefinition of Western
Christianity that took place in the Reformation and Counter-Reformation
hardened doctrinal barriers to the point that people were being burned in
the sixteenth century for practices that were considered evidences of
devoutness in the fourteenth. The attempt, though, made the language and
concepts of the Hermetic tractates central to much of post-medieval magic
in the West.
The translation of the Corpus Hermeticum and Perfect
Sermon given here is that of G.R.S. Mead (1863-1933), originally
published as Vol. 2 of his Thrice Greatest Hermes (London, 1906).
Mead was a close associate of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, the founder and
moving spirit of the Theosophical Society, and most of his considerable
scholarly output was brought out under Theosophical auspices. The result,
predictably, was that most of that output has effectively been blacklisted
in academic circles ever since.
This is unfortunate, for Mead's translations of the Hermetic literature
were until quite recently the best available in English. (They are still
the best in the public domain; thus their use here.) The Everard
translation of 1650, which is still in print, reflects the state of
scholarship at the time it was made - which is only a criticism because a
few things have been learned since then! The Walter Scott translation -
despite the cover blurb on the recent Shambhala reprint, this is not the
Sir Walter Scott of Ivanhoe fame - while more recent than Mead's,
is a product of the "New Criticism" of the first half of this century, and
garbles the text severely; scholars of Hermeticism of the caliber of Dame
Frances Yates have labeled the Scott translation worthless. By contrast, a
comparison of Mead's version to the excellent modern translation by Brian
Copenhaver, or to the translations of CH I (Poemandres) and VII (The
Greatest Ill Among Men is Ignorance of God) given in Bentley Layton's
The Gnostic Scriptures, shows Mead as a capable
translator, with a usually solid grasp of the meaning of these sometimes
There is admittedly one problem with Mead's translation: the aesthetics
of the English text. Mead hoped, as he mentioned at the beginning of
Thrice Greatest Hermes, to "render...these beautiful
theosophic treatises into an English that might, perhaps, be thought in
some small way worthy of the Greek originals." Unfortunately for this
ambition, he was writing at a time when the last remnants of the florid
and pompous Victorian style were fighting it out with the more
straightforward colloquial prose that became the style of the new century.
Caught in this tangle like so many writers of the time, Mead wanted to
write in the grand style but apparently didn't know how. The result is a
sometimes bizarre mishmash in which turn-of-the-century slang stands cheek
by jowl with overblown phrases in King James Bible diction, and in which
mishandled archaicisms, inverted word order, and poetic contractions
render the text less than graceful - and occasionally less than readable.
Seen from a late twentieth century sensibility, the result verges on
unintentional self-parody in places: for example, where Mead uses the
Scots contraction "ta'en" (for "taken"), apparently for sheer poetic
color, calling up an image of Hermes Trismegistus in kilt and sporran.
The "poetic" word order is probably the most serious barrier to
readability; it's a good rule, whenever the translation seems to descend
into gibberish, to try shuffling the words of the sentence in question. It
may also be worth noting that Mead consistently uses "for that" in place
of "because" and "aught" in place of "any", and leaves out the word "the"
more or less at random.